On a rainy Wednesday evening in April, I pulled into the gas station where Anthony’s mom had suggested we meet. Anthony and his cousin hopped out of the car and ran to hug me. We were outside and wearing masks, I told myself as I hugged them back, feeling both guilty and better than I had in days. I gave Anthony four books. “See you tomorrow,” he said, putting “see” in air quotes.
I’m a literacy coach at a public elementary school in Berkeley, Calif., and before March 14, I worked in a small, sunny room with two other teachers. I had my own corner with a kidney-shaped table, where I taught reading groups. The day we were told school was temporarily canceled, I dragged my whiteboard easel and magnetic letters home. I figured I’d throw together some online lessons until we returned; after spring break was the general consensus.
At first it was enough to make sure my students could log on to virtual school. Most of them didn’t have computers at home, some didn’t have Internet, and several were taking care of younger siblings. Half of my students spoke English as a second language, and many had a parent who was an essential worker. These were bright kids with the deck stacked against them, and the ways in which we failed them as a society had been laid bare with the pandemic.
Our school got Chromebooks for families who needed them. The local Internet provider delivered free Internet. My phone filled with parents’ numbers. The first day I felt shy about getting in touch. By the end of the week, I was texting shamelessly. The parents texted me all day, too. Occasionally, a kid would co-opt her parent’s phone and send a stream of emojis.
Once the reading groups were up and running, however, I found them a little deadening for all of us. The same activities we enjoyed in person held less excitement. The energy of the room was gone. And my role felt suspect.
At school, my students do most of their reading not with me, but in their regular classrooms. They dive into novels in book clubs and on their own. In my small groups, they work on the act of reading itself. We read shorter texts together, and they synthesize their skills and build strategies to grow as readers. At school, this felt fine. My students were excited to make progress, and read more confidently in their classrooms. But now there were no classrooms to read in.
I had to flip my thinking. Instead of noticing everything we couldn’t do in this new setup, I considered its possibilities. What could we accomplish now that we couldn’t at school? We always say we want kids to read at home. Well, I thought, they’re home.
Reading is one of the few experiences that hasn’t been mangled by the pandemic. When you’re mid-story, you can momentarily forget the bleakness around you. My students find reading difficult; that’s why they’re with me. On their own, alone at home, they’re unlikely to pick up a book. But maybe together, we could give it a try.
It was a promising idea with a flaw. We had no books. And we didn’t need just any books, we needed great books these particular kids would love: main characters they’d see themselves in; stories they’d find riveting. Where would I get these books? My teaching partners and I set up a fundraiser with a local bookstore. We shared the project on social media and solicited donations. Over the next weeks, 100 books arrived.
This was how I found myself meeting Anthony’s mom at the gas station, talking to Alfredo’s dad in my broken Spanish, stashing books under the red bench on Jasmine’s porch. (I’ve changed the children’s names to protect their privacy.) The next day, when I logged in to my third-grade Google Meet, my five students were already there, talking over one another. “We voted on what to read first,” Jasmine told me. “Stella Diaz won.” Taking my cue from my third-graders, I let my fourth-graders vote. They were in a different frame of mind: They wanted escape. They chose “The Wild Robot.”
The groups fell into a pattern: We’d talk about yesterday’s chapter, I’d start the new chapter aloud, and they’d continue reading it silently on their own. Meanwhile, I’d call on them one at a time to read aloud to me. Afterwards we’d come together for more discussion. The end goal was to build my students’ desire to read on their own. And along the way, to connect with one another, given our current isolation.
In school, I’d typically use some of our whole-group time for skill-building. Now I taught skills on the fly. I saved our time together for what seemed more pressing: a chance for everyone to share their thoughts and get excited about the story.
My third-graders discussed what Stella should do about the girl who was bullying her, what it meant to feel like a different person at home and in school. My fourth-graders debated whether Roz, a robot stranded on an island inhabited by animals, could feel loneliness or fear. Anthony loved it that, while Roz was programmed not to be violent, this didn’t mean she couldn’t be annoying. Emani related to the way Roz learned the languages of the animals.
It’s now January, and I never would have imagined I’d still be meeting my students over a screen. I can’t wait to see them in person. When I do, I’ll approach my job differently. I’ll still teach my students the skills they need to become stronger readers, but I’ll focus foremost on what they need to be happy readers.
In the meantime, our online groups continue. When I listen to my students read, I hear progress, which brings me joy. What makes me happier is the way they sprawl on their beds, munching chips, books spread out in front of them. They’re lost in other worlds, right before my eyes. Amidst the isolation and confinement of the pandemic they have a bit of freedom and some company. They feel the urge to keep going, to see what will happen next. This was what I wanted to give them, and without knowing it, this is what they’ve given me.
Elizabeth Scarboro is the author of “My Foreign Cities, A Memoir,” and an elementary school literacy coach in Berkeley, Calif.